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Jewish sites promoted in Europe

ROME, Aug 23 (JTA) — An ancient mikvah in Sicily. The Jewish cemetery in Sarajevo. The oldest synagogue in Great Britain.

These are just a few of the hundreds of Jewish heritage sites in 16 European countries that will be open to the public Sept. 3 in a “European Day of Jewish Culture.”

The scope of this year’s initiative is a demonstration of a growing interest in European Jewish heritage and Jewish heritage sites that has developed markedly in the past decade.

From Spain to Switzerland, from Belgium to the Balkans, the aim of the event is to recognize Jewish heritage as an integral part of European cultural heritage and to promote tourism to sites of Jewish interest.

According to organizers, as many as 300 or more synagogues, cemeteries, ritual baths, medieval ghettos and Jewish museums will be on show.

Guided tours, exhibitions, concerts and other events are also planned — ranging from a Jewish book fair in Bologna to food-tastings of typical Jewish cuisine in a number of towns and cities. Special brochures, leaflets and other informational material will be distributed in a number of places.

“The Jewish community wants to promote awareness and stimulate interest in all aspects of its culture,” said a representative of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities. “They know that tolerance begins with curiosity in others, and that acquaintance and encounter help eliminate preconceptions, enabling dialogue among peoples.”

For decades after World War II, Jews and non-Jews alike paid little attention to preserving or documenting Jewish sites that had survived both the destruction of the Holocaust and demographic shifts of Jewish populations.

Many Jews wanted nothing to do with places that they believed were vestiges of a closed chapter of history.

But since the late 1980s — and particularly since the fall of communism opened up Eastern and Central Europe to tourists and scholars — Jewish heritage has become increasingly recognized as a rich legacy for Europe as a whole and embraced as an important component of multicultural society.

“Jewish heritage in France is also the heritage of all the French people, just as the cathedrals of France also belong to France’s Jews,” France’s Culture Minister told a conference on European Jewish heritage held in Paris last year.

Sites in nearly 40 towns and cities will be open in Italy, home to about 35,000 Jews. In Florence, Italy’s culture minister will attend a ceremony kicking off restoration of the city’s magnificent synagogue and Jewish museum.

In Britain, sites in London and eight other cities are on the list, putting a number of selected historic synagogues on public view for the first time.

Among the synagogues open to the public will be London’s Bevis Marks Synagogue, the oldest in Britain, built in 1701.

Most sites on display are generally closed to public access, and many were abandoned for decades — or centuries.

Like Spanish ghettos that will be open for viewing, the Medieval Mikveh in Sicily, considered one of the finest in Europe, predates the expulsion of Jews from Spanish-ruled lands in 1492.

The Jewish cemetery in Sarajevo, founded in 1630, is undergoing restoration after being seriously damaged during the siege of Bosnia in the 1990s, when it was on the front line of fighting and used as an important artillery position by Bosnia Serbs.

In several countries, the government is serving as a sponsor, and the Council of Europe has included Jewish Culture Day as part of its campaign promoting “Europe, a Common Heritage.”

France’s Agency for the Development of Tourism of the Bas-Rhin, B’nai B’rith Europe, the European Council of Jewish Communities and the Red de Juderias de Espana, in Girona, Spain. are coordinating the initiative, which will take place in Austria, Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Spain, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

The European Open Day is an expansion of an “Open Doors to Jewish Heritage” program initiated in the French region of Alsace in 1996.

Each year, the number of participating sites has grown. Last year, sites in five countries were included as an experimental step toward expanding the event to a Europewide event this year.

For information on the European Day of Jewish Culture, see the Web site of the European Council of Jewish Communities: www.ecjc.com.

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